Christopher Theofanidis, composer
Aaron Grad, interviewer
When did you first encounter the Brandenburg Concertos? What meaning did they have for you?
The first memory I have of hearing them is from my late teens. I heard the second and the third on the heels of each other, and I really liked both of them; I thought they sounded so brilliant and energetic. The next time I remember really having to confront them was in my doctoral program, as part of a course that Jacob Druckman taught on orchestration. He taught, in fact, this very concerto, the third one, and I thought it was just the weirdest thing I’d ever seen on the syllabus of an orchestration class—I was expecting Mahler or Stravinsky. What Bach does ‘orchestrationally’ in the piece, however, is he thickens each line- one line becomes three or four notes thick, like painting with a really thick brush as an orchestrational texture. I thought that was an amazingly astute observation.
Is Bach the muse referenced in your title?
Yes- it is supposed to be a tip of the hat to the master. Bach serves as a muse to so many of us but also specifically in this New Brandenburg Project, he is the starting point for each of us composers to go in six different directions. The things that I would latch onto are very personal to me, having to do with harmony, ornamentation, and brilliance of sound. One of the other composers’ connection might be more structural, or more contrapuntal, or something having to do with those other elements that are attractive about Bach to somebody else. When I first started looking at this project, and was trying to come up with names for my piece, and I found a whole site of people making quotations about Bach, and they were unbelievable. William F. Buckley, said something like “If I die and go up to the Pearly Gates and Bach isn’t in, I’m turning around and going back the other direction.” I thought this was great- it is a kind of crazy idea about the importance of one single composer in your edification as a human being.
Have you had any “locker room talk” among the other composers involved in this project?
The funny thing is that the locker room talk happened at Zankel Hall, when a group of us were there for another occasion. The typical composer question is, “What are you doing next?” And of course the question came up, and I said I’m working on this piece for Orpheus, and the person next to me, Aaron Jay Kernis, said, “Me, too!” and then Paul Moravec turned around and said, “Me, too!” So we all discovered we were working on this common project. To know that I am working on a similar project with a lot of different composers is really special. It gives me a sense of community that I don’t typically have. I will be very curious to see how each of them turns out, especially at the end of the whole cycle. I know Orpheus intends to perform them back to back, and it would be quite a spectacular thing to hear everybody’s different take on this one muse.
What elements of the Bach did you draw on for your piece?
One of the things that strikes me about the Brandenburg concerti is that they are quite short. Brandenburg 3 is in the neighborhood of 10 to 12 minutes, depending on what happens with that strange, two-note second movement. And that give a very particular feeling to the piece. So I liked the idea of representing each of these movements in that shorter time frame, three movements of three to four minutes each. The thing I like about the Bach is the strong sense of propulsion that happens in both of those outer movements. So I took the approach of turning up the dial on all three of the sensibilities of each of those movements. The other thing that is pretty much throughout the whole piece as a reference is the approach to harmony. I always remember this quote in which Beethoven described Bach as the great harmonist—not as the great contrapuntalist, but as the great harmonist. Bach has a sense of harmonic deliberation and certitude of where he is going next in the harmony. And so in a way I have engaged a little bit of that tonal, leading tone movement, mixed with a more saturated harmonic language. The sound of it will feel quite familiar at some level, but in any one moment you may have these kind of cluster movements of sound over that basic triadic or tonal vocabulary. That describes all three movements in a way- this saturated leading tone harmony.
A Baroque element that turns up in much of your music is ornamentation around a note. Is that a core part of your language?
I love trills, I confess! You can look at these elaborate Baroque ornamentation charts, and every secondary slash and little squiggle represents some florid event around a note. Part of it is representing that sense of freedom that you can get in the music. But of course today you have to write it out—these things that were so innate to people then, but now become things like thirteen-tuplets to us, ridiculous notational burdens, in a way. But the idea is that they give a sense of freedom and breath to a line. I like the sense of warmth and abundance that they bring to the music.
Are there any aspects of your piece that are tailored specifically for Orpheus?
Orpheus has such brilliant synchronism, and there are certain kinds of turns and sudden changes internally in the music which have an almost visual component to them- a kind of suddenness that I knew Orpheus would do very well.
How did you approach writing for harpsichord?
I almost felt like it was a guilty pleasure. It’s the electric guitar of the Baroque. One of the things that always struck me about more contemporary harpsichord writing was the great sound of a cluster. So there are quite a few passages in here where you get four-note clusters, in the context again of this more tonal structure. Some harpsichords have 4’ and 16’ pull stops, so you can lower or raise the sound an octave if you want, and it creates a very different kind of brilliance. I am hoping they are going to use some of these octave stops.
This concert pairs Bach and Schumann. What does that pairing bring to mind for you?
One of the things about Schumann, ironically, is that there is all this almost fussy detail on a local level, in terms of voice leading and internal counterpoint. Like Bach, there is this delight in the micro level of things, as much as there are the good themes and melodies that he is known for, too.